Senator John McCain is trying to pressure Arizona’s four Republican House members to back broad changes to U.S. immigration law by getting the state’s most influential business and religious leaders to do it for him.
The five-term Republican is enlisting their help to persuade his home-state House members to support the first significant revision of immigration law in a generation. The Greater Phoenix Economic Council, the Arizona Restaurant Association, the state’s banking and small-business trade groups, and local evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders are among those McCain met with during a 36-hour Phoenix-area visit this week.
“My plea to you is to give this the highest priority for the next several months,” McCain told about a dozen local business leaders Aug. 28 at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. “I would like you to petition our members of Congress and those 30 percent out there who are still not convinced of the need for this legislation.”
His push emphasizes how the immigration debate has split the Republican Party, as well as the House and the Senate. Arizona’s four Republican House members -- Paul Gosar, Matt Salmon, Dave Schweikert and Trent Franks -- are among those in McCain’s party who raise concerns about the plan, with a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., that the Democratic-controlled Senate passed June 27.
McCain, who describes Arizona as “ground zero” for the immigration debate, said that gaining the support of at least one of his state’s Republican representatives could help change the minds of other opponents in their party.
“It would be very helpful if they just agreed to sit down and negotiate with us,” McCain, who turned 77 yesterday, said during an Aug. 27 interview in his Phoenix office. “All four of them have been rather quiet.”
House opposition is imperiling the effort to rewrite immigration policy. McCain, a co-author of the Senate plan, has dedicated much of this month’s congressional break to activating business and religious groups, saying they are “pillars” of the party whose support could change reticent lawmakers’ minds.
“We would like to convince them that this legislation is necessary for the good of Arizona,” McCain told the business leaders. He said Republican House members “should respond to the business interests that we represent.”
In many ways, McCain is in the best position to push for House action among the four Republican senators who, along with four Democrats, wrote the Senate bill.
His fellow Arizona senator, Jeff Flake, has far less of a national profile, having joined the Senate in January after serving six terms in the U.S. House. Florida’s Marco Rubio, who is contemplating a 2016 presidential run, has been careful not to alienate Tea Party Republicans, who oppose a path to citizenship. South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham is preoccupied with primary challengers he has drawn for his 2014 re-election race, in part because of his advocacy of the Senate bill.
At the national level, many Republicans say the party needs to reconnect with Latino voters after President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic votes cast in the 2012 presidential election. That position has caused a rift with the small-government Tea Party faction, many of whom prefer Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s self-deportation approach.
To bolster the arguments, McCain urged business leaders to cite data provided by Amherst, Massachusetts-based Regional Economic Models Inc. It said the immigration measure establishing a citizenship path and expanding visas would provide a $5.5 billion boost to Arizona’s economy by 2045 and increase total personal income for Arizona families by $2.5 billion by 2020.
“There’s a huge economic upside, and securing the border and regulating the immigrant workforce in Arizona -- and Texas and California -- is key to our economic growth,” Barry Broome, president of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said in an interview this week.
The group has provided business leaders, mayors and city council members with data showing how immigration changes would help stem workforce shortages in sectors like construction.
“What I don’t understand is why Congressman Gosar and Congressman Schweikert aren’t coming around more quickly on this issue for us,” Broome said.
None of Arizona’s Republican House members have endorsed the Senate bill, and all have said relatively little about it. Some people at an Aug. 27 immigration forum in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa criticized the citizenship path for undocumented workers.
“Why do they get in when other people have to go through the regular rules? I don’t think it’s right,” said Helen Henry, 70, who lives near Schweikert in Fountain Hills, Arizona, about a 30-mile drive from Phoenix. She said undocumented immigrants in Arizona were straining public resources, including health care and education.
Holding a placard displaying McCain’s and Flake’s faces and reading “We don’t care what Americans want! We’re pandering to illegal aliens and giving away your jobs!,” Henry was among several dozen protesters at the Aug. 27 event.
“We’re dumbing down our school systems, and we’re not going to be able to compete at some point because of some of these things that have happened with allowing all the illegals in and having to speak their language in the classrooms and all that,” she said, adding that she hoped Schweikert wouldn’t be persuaded to support something similar to the Senate proposal.
Republicans “don’t want to be seen as the pro-amnesty candidate,” while Democrats in swing districts may worry that supporting immigration-law changes will aid their Republican opponents in 2014, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington.
Gosar “believes we need immigration reform, but like many of his constituents, he will not be sold on promises of future border enforcement that will never occur,” spokesman Orlando Watson said in an e-mail.
Kristine Michalson, a spokeswoman for Salmon, said in an e-mail that during meetings this month, “the message from his constituents has been clear: Congress can do better than the Senate immigration reform bill.”
Schweikert’s and Franks’s offices didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Chris Zaharis, executive vice president at Empire Southwest LLC, an Arizona-based Caterpillar and John Deere dealership, said he met with Salmon and Gosar.
They cited political and procedural concerns, “which are a bit frustrating when you are just trying to make some progress,” Zaharis said.
Boehner and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia favor a step-by-step approach on immigration.
“We are not going to vote on the Senate bill in the House,” Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, said in an Aug. 28 interview.
Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a network of business groups that favor legal immigration, said it was “hard to tell” whether the push from business and religious groups was having an effect with House Republicans.
“The ingredients are still there for the right thing to happen” though it is too early to “see whether the ingredients come together,” Jacoby said in an interview.
Tennessee is the only other state with two Republican senators -- Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker -- who supported the Senate bill. As in Arizona, the Republicans in Tennessee’s House delegation oppose it. Alexander has drawn a primary challenger with Tea Party backing.
Immigration advocates credit McCain with keeping the issue visible.
He’s “trying to lead his party out of the wilderness” on its relationship with Hispanic voters, said Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice, a Washington group that backs a path to citizenship. “If they don’t adapt to a changing America, they will cease to exist as a viable national party.”
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